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Open Government: Moving beyond arguments on the ‘right thing to do’

Nathaniel Heller   |   November 7, 2016   |   Comments

The U.S. Congress can barely pass routine spending bills that support everything from roadways and bridges, to service members and their families and keeping the lights on at the post office. It’s no surprise, then, that getting and maintaining support for innovation within the federal government is no easy task.

recent report published by the General Services Administration’s Office of the Inspector General blasted over-hiring, missed revenue projections and staff time spent on non-billable activities at 18F, the internal government technology lab. The lab, which was one of the Obama administration’s crown jewel creations, was designed to be a self-funded technology incubator that spread open source and “lean” software development methodologies throughout the vast federal information technology universe. 18F was an important response to the fiasco, which demonstrated how traditional government IT often overspends and under-delivers. The inspector general (IG) tore into 18F’s inability to develop “a viable plan to achieve full cost recovery,” knocking the darling of U.S. government IT innovation off its pedestal.

The hand-wringing around 18F should be a stark wake-up call to the rest of the civic tech and broader open government community globally: the longer we wait to get serious about understanding the true, full costs of open government reforms and their downstream benefits (both financial and political), the more critiques we should expect in the future. We’re currently running on a mix of aspiration and wishful thinking rather than compelling arguments around the return on investment from opening up government. That approach needs to change, and soon.

Why don’t we have a compelling investment case?

As a community, why haven’t we invested the time and effort to make a more compelling case for open government, the broad conceptual umbrella under which reform experiments like 18F reside? In other sectors, such as health, education, nutrition and agriculture, these sorts of thorny cost-benefit questions are asked and answered routinely. Not that the answers are necessarily perfect or without controversy, but we know how much it roughly costs to meet nutrition targets in countries to reduce stunting, what sorts of investments are required to scale up universal health care in a region, and how much a mechanization program would cost to bring tractors to a district in order to increase agricultural yields. Thanks to complementary impact assessment research, we also have a general sense of what the gains are from those reform programs, whether improved health and nutrition outcomes or learning gains for students. Boosters of these programs are thus armed with reasonably compelling arguments in favor of their reforms: a dollar in yields X improvement in services coming out.

This sort of cost-benefit analysis is admittedly harder in open government (both the inputs and outputs or outcomes are often fuzzy) but not impossible, as various research efforts have shown in recent years. For instance, Result for Development’s (R4D) Transparency for Development project is one of the most ambitious randomized control trials exploring the impact of information transparency and community organizing on maternal and newborn health outcomes. In parallel, and under the auspices of the Research Consortium on the Impact of Open Government, R4D recently launched vanguard costing work to map the full costs of implementing core open government interventions such as open contracting, 311 systems and participatory budgeting. One can envision an exciting future in which costing results are married with the impact assessments to provide our community with more compelling return on investment arguments.

My hypothesis is that rather than being constrained by technical handicaps, our community is simply nervous about acknowledging that open government matters just as much (or maybe even more) for its instrumental value rather than its intrinsic value.

Many of us come from a rights-based approach to open government (“It’s the right thing to do!”) and are thus worried about undermining those rights-based arguments at the altar of instrumental lines of persuasion.

Intrinsic vs. instrumental angst

Recently, I had a debate with a colleague who’s deeply involved in the open government community globally and who expressed concerns over promoting an instrumental approach to open government. I’ve also wrestled with these trade-offs. Would focusing too much on the instrumental value of open government diminish rights-based calls for reform or action? Where I’ve come out is the idea that, absent greater investment in the instrumental approach, the current open government movement will likely stall because it relies almost exclusively on intrinsic arguments and fails to offer something for instrumentalists to seize. We need both camps aligned if we’re to be successful.

Champions of open government within the public sector believe strongly in the intrinsic arguments—hence their natural proclivity to align behind civil society rhetoric (e.g. “ours is a bigger vision for the world”). However, they struggle routinely to win battles inside of government about the value proposition of opening up. One exchange that stuck in my head was hearing a [central government reform unit] describe their constant battles with their finance ministry, which pushed back on every occasion asking what the return on investment was from “opening up” the government. The [reform unit’s] honest depiction of the debate was, “We didn’t really have an answer when pressed.” That did not put them in a good position to advance their arguments, rights-based or otherwise.

Costing work is so important that, when coupled with downstream impact assessments, we might finally begin to arrive at a point where we can push back hard on these critiques from both a civil society and government reformer perspective. Instead of simply arguing the intrinsic merits of open government, imagine being able to say to skeptics: “Fine, even if you’re not convinced this is the ‘right thing to do,’ it’ll save you 25 cents on the government dollar, or improve kids’ birthweights by 17 percent, or extend reliable provision of electricity by another two hours in the day.” These are potentially game-changing shifts in the discourse that make open government really hard to ignore.

In addition, there’s also the likely fear amongst many in the open government community that return on investment results might be limited (or nil) in some cases. If that’s the case, then I think we need a serious, adult conversation about the pros and cons of “opening up” when service delivery improvements or cost savings are minimal. In those instances, we may indeed fall back on the intrinsic arguments (“Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s still the right thing to do.”). Most open government champions are willing to take the risk of answering those tough questions because the upside of nailing the ROI or service improvement argument is massive.

Where are we heading?

At a practical level, not everything we do needs to (or should) change; we don’t suddenly all need to begin obsessing over return on investment, costing work, and impact assessments at every turn. But we do need an attitudinal shift that: a) accepts the idea that most (beyond our community of true believers) are “instrumentalists” and instrumentalists need return-on-investment arguments to get behind us; and b) is supportive of carving out the time, space and budget to invest in cost-benefit analysis in a more regular way than we currently do (which is basically never). Otherwise, expect more knocks on the door from skeptics looking for another 18F “golden boy” deserving of a comeuppance.

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